One thing that every journalist will have to deal with at some point in his or her career is the human source. Every news story has to have validity and something or someone other than the reporter to back it up. But how do you tell if the source is a reliable one? The first thing to know regarding checking out a potential human source is that it is pertinent to discern whether or not the source is truly knowledgeable and honest. A series of questions* to ask oneself can help with this:
- Why should I believe this information? Listening to instincts is a key factor. If there is any reason to think that there are ulterior motives for passing this information off and there is no way to confirm it, it should be held from publication.
- Who is this person? A journalist must make sure that the person is who he or she says, and if the source refuses to make this information accessible, then it is likely that he or she is not a reliable source.
- Is this person in a position to know this information? Be sure that it is likely that he or she would have had access to the information being passed. If it seems unlikely that he or she could have obtained the knowledge being claimed, then it may not be accurate and could be fabricated or be hearsay.
- Does this person have an ax to grind? If there are reasons to believe that the source is upset with those he or she is providing information on or has their own agenda to promote, then it is possible that the information is biased, inaccurate, or incomplete. This does not necessarily mean to dismiss the source’s information completely, but it is absolutely necessary to not publish anything that cannot be confirmed, and to eliminate any agenda or opinion that laces the information.
- Is this person using [the journalist] for personal gain? This happens all too often, when someone may see a way to get a job back, oust someone from a position that he or she covets, or gain momentum in a campaign by dirtying the competition. No journalist wishes to be used for these motivations. If the source’s information is confirmed and makes for a truly good news story, then the story should move ahead, but only without promoting the source in any way, shape, or form.
Another good way to confirm sources is to use source networking, and ask your source “Who else do you know who might know something about this?” Two sources are always better than one. Fact-checking everything in a news story more than once and keeping records is an absolute, both in order to be ethical toward the public and to protect the journalist.
*Adapted from Online Journalism: Reporting, Writing, and Editing for New Media by Richard Craig